New York City’s educational system is dysfunctional, but some of its schools offer reason for hope. Last month, I visited the Queensview Nursery School and Kindergarten (QNSK), a wonderful preschool in Astoria, and met with a remarkable group of women who have worked or volunteered at the school for decades.
The preschool was founded in 1951, the same year that the Queensview Co-Operative, a multibuilding complex of more than 700 owner-occupied apartments, opened its doors. The late Helen Varsam, one of the program’s early directors, designed the school’s educational program, which has satisfied generations of parents and remains in place today. Her daughter, Stephanie Varsam Saris, is now the educational director; one of her granddaughters is also on staff.
A former Queensview parent who later taught at the preschool recently wrote of the ties between the school and the community:
Queensview is unique because it helps its students and parents form long lasting relationships in Astoria. Raising children in New York can bring with it the added hardship of inconsistency as many families move to neighborhoods and out of the city. Many families do not have a larger support system of grandparents nearby and it can be difficult to form lasting friendships with families within a big city community. . . . the ties that my family made in preschool are still present and strong.
When Helen Varsam charted the school’s program, early-childhood education was not the norm for most families. Those public school districts that offered such programming typically ran only half-day kindergartens for five-year-olds. Academics and others were still learning how best to teach younger kids.
Those pioneering early-childhood educators recognized that three- and four-year-old children had different educational needs than children even a few years older. Maria Montessori, one of the first early-childhood-education theorists, developed a pedagogic philosophy that animates many preschools and elementary schools today. She saw the child’s inner desire to learn in spiritual terms:
Let us leave the life free to develop within the limits of the good and let us observe this inner life developing. This is the whole of our mission. Perhaps as we watch we shall be reminded of the words of Him who was absolutely good, “Suffer the little children to come unto Me.” That is to say, “Do not hinder them from coming, since, if they are left free and unhampered, they will come.”
Varsam’s school emphasized the teacher’s role in guiding, rather than directing, young minds. Even today, part of the school website’s motto reads, “Playing to Learn.” Varsam described this philosophy in her introduction to the school’s yearbook a few years before her death:
I’ve noted how frequently parents asked me what students in Queensview Nursery School really accomplished. “Do children learn,” they would often ask me, “or do they just play?” Of course, I answered that by playing, they are learning. When you see children playing, take some time to watch and listen to what is really happening. If you pay careful attention, you will be amazed at how brilliantly they are processing the structures of their world and learning skills that will last them a lifetime.
The QNSK program is rooted in careful thought about the nature of the young child. To the untrained eye, it may look chaotic—the classrooms are jampacked with learning materials, including toys, blocks, art supplies, books, cubbies, and other visual and tactile aids—but it all follows a well-guided structure. Parents recognize the school’s success. Many have remained attached to the school long after their own children have moved on to elementary and even high school.
Astoria has always been a community of immigrants and first-generation Americans. Formerly home to a large Greek population, it is now increasingly diverse, with growing numbers of Indian, Bangladeshi, Egyptian, and African families. Those demographics are found as well at QNSK, whose students apply and are placed through New York City’s school system. Like many city schools, QNSK also serves a small number of recently arrived migrants, using the same approach that has succeeded over the years: it instructs students in English, the common denominator across such disparate populations.
While parents embrace the school and a steady stream of applicants vie for its limited seats, QNSK’s devoted educators are inadequately rewarded. Though New York City has sought to improve publicly funded, privately run pre-kindergarten teacher pay at schools like QNSK, the compensation still lags that of the unionized teachers in publicly run programs.
Set in Astoria, the 2006 movie A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints offered a simple premise: saints walk among us, though sometimes we don’t recognize them. I suspect that for many QNSK graduates, the women whom I met and their predecessors at the school qualify as unrecognized saints; they have improved and guided lives in ways not always obvious. In many schools over the decades, I have met similar women and men, fighting the good fight daily within a system that can be soul-crushing, and often not aware of the small miracles that they achieve.
New York City’s leaders would be wise to look to them for inspiration.
Photo by Caiaimage/Robert Daly/iStock